A few weeks ago John Conway and your humble blog-author visited the Natural History Museum (London) to see and review the new exhibit Extinction: Not the End of the World (thanks to Becky Caruana for organising this). Since the exhibit is heavily tetrapod-themed, discussion and review here is entirely appropriate and, while there is a small entrance fee, my basic recommendation is that NHM visitors especially interested in tetrapods should definitely go and have a look. And so, on to assorted thoughts and opinions on the exhibition…

Extinction: Not the End of the World combines our knowledge of geological extinctions with recent, anthropogenic ones to ask pressing questions about, and raise awareness of, the modern biological crisis. On entry, we immediately see a big (replica) skull of a Chasmosaurus. That alone took up a bit of my time, since ceratopsian skulls are fascinating and there’s lots of really interesting things to check out whenever confronted with them (in this case: the gigantic and complex nasal opening, the anatomy of the frill around the gigantic fenestrae, the bizarre supracranial cavity… that’s right, a flask-shaped cavity on the skull roof, in between the eyes). Also at the entrance to the exhibit are giant digital screens that show changing images of diverse taxa, posed alongside questions about extinction, its inevitability, and about the possible future of our world and our species.

The exhibit itself is decked out with an interesting panel-wooden display furniture that you should be able to see in some of the photos here. Both free-standing display units and installations around the edges of the front part of the exhibition tackle declining modern species (a free-standing case is devoted to the plight of the critically endangered Spoon-billed sandpiper Eurynorhynchus pygmeus of eastern Asia, perhaps down to less than 200 birds*), geological extinction events (I didn’t look at that bit; too familiar), the decline and extinction of Megaloceros (cue obligatory use of enormous, ha ha, rack), and recent avian extinctions.

* Check out Saving the Spoon-billed sandpiper.

The ‘avian extinctions’ case was one of the highlights for me. A really nice Great auk Pinguinus impennis (presumably a model: there are scarcely any stuffed specimens in existence, those you see in museums are typically constructed from bits of pigeons), posed in a diving posture, is positioned alongside a Passenger pigeon Ectopistes migratorius, moa remains (including a set of feathers), and an Aepyornis egg.

Of the Huia and the Dodo

A male and female Huia Heteralocha acutirostris lie next to one another in the same case. Huia are fascinating (I’ve written about them on Tet Zoo before: see Sexual dimorphism in bird bills: commoner than we’d thought) and a naïve viewer would certainly be surprised by the fact that the two very differently shaped birds are the male and female of the same species. However, there are already two other male and female Huia pairs on display elsewhere in the same museum, so the novelty is not as… novel as it should be, perhaps.

Julian Hume’s painting of a Passenger pigeon flock passing overhead forms the background to this case. You might know the same painting from its appearance on the cover of the Poyser Extinct Birds book that Julian produced with Michael Walters (Hume & Walters 2012). The book is very expensive and I don’t own it.

On the issue of artwork, one bit – not a major feature, just an image scattered round the edges of the exhibit – is really terrible and I’d rather not set eyes on it again… it’s a silhouette, supposedly of a sabretooth cat but actually just a bastardised image of a tiger, kitted out with enormously long, absurdly super-slender ‘canines’. Zero points to whoever designed it.

A reconstructed Dodo Raphus cucullatus – substantially better looking and more accurate than the two the NHM has in its bird gallery – is the centrepiece of a small section nearby on Mauritius. The Dodo is great: I’d like to know more about its construction and who did it, since all I know is that it was specially commissioned for the exhibition. Out of curiosity, I just checked Jolyn Parrish’s The Dodo and the Solitaire: a Natural History (Parrish 2013), to see if there’s a section on dodo models. There isn’t. Incidentally, my review of that impressive book is in press for Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Memories of Green

The Dodo part of the exhibit isn’t just about the Dodo – after all, we’ve all heard those stories a million times before about how it was naïve and easy to kill, was bludgeoned into extinction by hungry sailors who either did or did not enjoy eating its flesh etc. etc. etc. – but also about the sad story of deforestation and habitat loss on Mauritius. I was reminded of the final chapter in Parrish (2013), titled Memories of Green (itself a reference to one of Van Gelis’s acoustic tracks in Blade Runner).

Indeed, that’s in keeping with the melancholy feel to the whole exhibition, cleverly (and I assume deliberately) created through the combination of quiet background music, the rather rustic exhibit furniture, the nature of the exhibits, and the low lighting. As John and I discussed in our TetZoo podcast review of the exhibit, the low lighting might be a deliberate ‘moody’ touch, it might be a necessity to reduced light damage to the taxiderm animals and models in the display, or it might also be a constraint caused by the difficulty of working in the confines of the Victorian era, stonework architecture of the NHM.

The issue of modern declines and extinctions are again brought home with sections on the near-extinct or extinct Baiji or Chinese river dolphin Lipotes vexillifer and critically endangered and perhaps near-extinct Slender-billed curlew Numenius tenuirostris, both depressing stories of human lack of concern and wanton destruction (Baiji decline was caused by habitat loss, overfishing, entanglement in fishing gear, electrocution caused by electric fishing, damming, and acoustic and industrial pollution; the curlew is in trouble due to excessive hunting on its wintering grounds). Tigers, the tuna fishing industry, the massive impact of alien animals like rabbits and feral cats and other sad stories are also covered.

Back from the brink… or, still teetering on the brink, anyway

The point is also made that species can recover from the edge of extinction thanks to conservation efforts and captive breeding, plus species thought to be extinct can of course be rediscovered at some point. Such cases – a few have been announced lately, including the hylid frog Isthomhyla rivularis from Costa Rica, the Bururi long-fingered frog Cardioglossa cyaneospila from tropical Africa, and the Hula painted frog Latonia nigriventer from Israel* – are usually touted as good news. They are, but news of the discoveries needs to be tempered with the fact that the populations concerned are typically in dire trouble, reduced to small remnants and hardly healthy and destined for perpetuation. And don’t forget that declaring a species extinct when the chance that it might persist can be extremely bad news: if it’s extinct, people give up on conservation efforts altogether, the classic example of this phenomenon (termed Romeo Error) being the Cebu flowerpecker Dicaeum quadricolor (Collar 1998).

* As fans of fossil aurans will know, the Hula painted frog is especially remarkable in that it seems to be an extant member of Latonia, previously only thought to be known from the fossil record of the Oligocene, Miocene, Pliocene and Pleistocene of Europe (Biton et al. 2013).

On the subject of rediscoveries, I was pretty thrilled to see a taxiderm specimen of Forest owlet Heteroglaux blewitti, thought extinct between 1884 and 1997 and now known to be persisting at several well separate Indian locations. A model of a West Indian Ocean coelacanth Latimeria chalumnae features in the exhibit too. Various other models and taxiderm specimens are scattered throughout the exhibit.

Three interactive experiences

I remember three features from the back part of the exhibit. Number 1 is an interactive audio display on songbirds, Number 2 is a giant computer game, Number 3 is The Cage.

Number 1 is actually a 5 minute recording, titled Early Birds and produced (via commission from Channel 4) by Suky Best. It combines recordings of British birdsong with interview segments whereby people reflect on birdsong and what it means, personally. Museums today are full of this sort of thing (well, arty museums that underwent modern redesigns are, anyway) and what I’ve just described certainly sounds twee and more to do with ‘feelings’ than education. But, actually, I liked it. There is, after all, a deeply personal, emotional attachment to nature among all of us that we need to explore and celebrate on occasion. Why, you might ask, was this included in an exhibition on extinction? The reason: songbirds are in decline and extinction is plausible for many populations.

It really makes me cross when I hear people (typically either ill-informed people who don’t regularly interact with the natural world, or those with a covert agenda) say that things are fine, or even that things are better than they ever have been. Basic research and observation on most ecosystems, species and populations will show that this is a blatant falsehood, and even those of us living in areas with familiar, low-diversity and (arguably) bland communities of species – I reside in southern England, just sayin’ – can see an obvious, pervasive, ubiquitous decline of living things across the board. There really are less fish, less bees, less wasps, less songbirds, less bats, less lizards and so on than there used to be, even if you’re looking at things on the scale of a few decades, never mind centuries or millennia. The message I personally take from the songbird section of the exhibit is that we’re – if you’ll pardon the expression – pissing on our own shoes, since our own lives are poorer, blander, emptier than they could be, should be, or – perhaps – need to be.

Number 2. A major feature near the end of the exhibit is a giant interactive computer display featuring a game called Survivor (subtitled ‘How long can you survive?’). Via hard-to-master, touch-free hand control, you move a population of small, imaginary creatures across a giant, constantly changing landscape. You have to avoid glaciation events, exploding volcanoes and so on, and you have to keep your population going by finding suitable food patches. It’s ok. I managed to survive for 30 million years, which ain’t bad. I ordinarily despise interactive computer displays in museum exhibits. They date quickly and take up space that really should be spent on something far more worthwhile, and (apologies here if I sound elitist or misanthropic) they frequently give kids and other visitors the excuse to do the same old crap they do every other day of their lives (look at screens, play videogames, use touchscreens) when they really could be treated to a more unique experience. Survivor was ok, but I don’t think anyone would play it and really come to better appreciate or understand extinction more than they already did. It seemed like something stuck there to keep kids happy.

Actually, the game is quite similar to John’s (as yet unreleased, I think) Animalcules. I don’t know if that’s a coincidence but it looks like a pretty remarkable one. John discusses the issue in the podcast (ep 10).

Number 3. Finally, at the end of the exhibit is a sort of big cage: a symbolic tree. Visitors are supposed to write messages on card leaves and hook them to the cage, thus covering the ‘tree’ in messages. Reading them was great fun. Many were inscribed with sincere messages devoted to the plight of the Giant panda, Tiger and so on, and some were covered with intelligent comments about over-population, pollution, and how we should be better stewards of the planet. Of course, anonymity gives people the chance to be silly as well, so there are also leaves marked with such messages as “Glad to see we’re winning – keep it up!”, “Save pigs! Bacon is needed!”, “I wish dinosaurs still existed!”, “Mother Earth is crying! Humans = bad, Animals = good”, “Give bears super-powers”, and “My favourite bit was the chainsaw”.

To wrap-up, I thought pretty highly of the exhibition. It contained enough interesting specimens, worthy bits of information and interactive components to keep me busy and entertained, it was suitably designed in view of the melancholy topic, and it was neither cramped nor empty-looking. Four stars out of five.

Extinction: Not the End of the World shows at the Natural History Museum (London) until September 8th. Read more about the exhibition here at the NHM site. I believe that it’s a travelling exhibit and hence it might show up elsewhere.

Refs - -

Biton, R., Geffen, E., Vences, M., Cohen, O., Bailon, S., Rabinovich, R., Malka, Y., Oron, T., Boistel, R., Brumfeld, V. & Gafny, S. 2013. The rediscovered Hula painted frog is a living fossil. Nature Communications 4 (1959) doi:10.1038/ncomms2959

Collar, N. J. 1998. Extinction by assumption: or, the Romeo Error on Cebu. Oryx 32, 239-243.

Hume, J. P. & Walters, M. 2012. Extinct Birds. A & C Black, London.

Parish, J. C. 2013. The Dodo and the Solitaire: a Natural History. Indiana University Press, Bloomington & Indianapolis.

Rasmussen, P. C. & Collar, N. J. 1999. A major specimen fraud in the Forest Owlet Heteroglaux (Athene auct.) blewitti. Ibis 141, 11-21.

Weidensaul, S. 2002. The Ghost With Trembling Wings. North Point Press, New York.